The Power of Listening

Everything we do depends for its quality on the thinking we do first.”
— Nancy Kline in "Time to Think"

When I was 7, my grandpa showed me his tool shop. He spent a lifetime honing his carpentry skills making cabinets, trimming out houses and building apartment complexes. His legacy could be seen in the homes he built and the scars on his hands. I thought the world of him.

But like any 7-year-old boy, hammers and lathes aren’t what motivated me. I loved woodworking because it connected me to Grandpa. And years later I could see that I loved him because he listened to me. We talked about anything I wanted to. No judgment. No embarrassment.

As a first-year teacher I spent far too much time in class talking. I started that career with an assumption that my students best learned when I espoused wisdom. I quickly discovered that I have very little wisdom to espouse.

As a rule, silence makes us nervous. Voids in a conversation feel like something is missing. I’ve personally felt that if I don’t have something interesting to contribute, then surely the other person will lose interest in me. It feels like there’s risk involved when silence ensues.

But it’s the opposite that’s true.

THE REVELATION

A few years ago my brother flew up to spend some time with me in Michigan. I took him to my work Christmas party. We were there around four hours, and at the end of the party, they offered him a job. Days later my co-workers repeatedly told me how interesting and polite my brother was. They couldn’t wait to see him again.

When I was with the family for Christmas, I asked him what he did or said to make them so enamored with him. His answer surprised me.

Nothing.

What do you mean nothing?

All I did was ask them about themselves. And when I found something they were passionate about, I just asked them to tell me more.

That’s it? That’s the big secret?

You would have thought he was the most interesting man in the world. But when I went back to work and asked my co-workers what they had talked about with him, they couldn’t remember. They had come away knowing almost nothing about my brother, but left the night feeling deeply connected to him.

TIME TO THINK

Nancy Kline’s book Time to Think beautifully lays out this same reality from a therapeutic perspective. Her premise is that the quality of thinking others do in our presence is directly impacted by the quality of our listening.

Think about that. We have the power to impact others’ thinking. Not with some magic argument. Not by some secret knowledge. All we have to do is allow them space to think free of judgment, free from fear of reprisal, free from interruption.

Although her book isn’t about making friends, her concepts are very nearly what my brother had stumbled onto naturally. We are all most interested in our own thoughts. And helping others to explore and express their thoughts has a direct impact on our relationships and effectiveness.

Here are 3 powerful take-aways from her book.

LISTEN WITH YOUR WHOLE BEING

Listening without interrupting is difficult for us. I can’t successfully do it myself without first planning on doing it. We’re so used to the natural give and take in a conversation, that when we’re parsing through nuance or difficult ideas, we follow these same patterns. But when I’m doing mental gymnastics in new territory, the last thing I need is someone to try to “help” me figure it out. What I need is the space to take new ideas to their ends, to see what’s there, and then the freedom to change direction without distraction.

Sometimes I can do this alone. Journaling helps me layout complex ideas. But there’s something powerful in working through an idea or series of ideas in the presence of a skilled listener.

So, how do we do that? How do we listen?

Kline writes that our faces convey more than we realize. We cannot not communicate.

Kline says to put on your listening face. What face do you use to tell the speaker that you are interested in what they have to say, and you are on the edge of your seat to hear the very next words coming out of their mouth?

Put on that face. Freeze it. Now go to the mirror and look at it with honest eyes. Does your face say what you thought it did? Does it convey genuine interest? Is it sincere looking? If not, tweak it. Smile a bit more. Unfurrow your brow. Relax your jaw. A welcoming smile and eyes encourage the speaker to continue. A perplexed look will stop them in their tracks. Now they’re concerned that you’re upset and will turn the attention away from their own thoughts and on to trying to comfort you.

It shocked me when I did this exercise. The face I have used for the past 20 years no longer conveys what it used to. In my case, what I thought was a slight smile looked more like a stern smirk. My face has fallen slightly with age. My eyes don’t naturally crinkle at the right places. And because of a hiccup in an orthodontic surgery years ago, the left side of my face doesn’t respond as easily as the right. So, I worked at it. I spent 20 minutes practicing the right expression. In fact, I found several that I liked. And guess what? They work. I instantly found people inclined to share more openly and for longer. Who knew? I simply needed to update my smile.

LISTEN WITHOUT INTERRUPTION

This is harder than you’d think. We love the give and take of conversation. And that’s completely valid. It’s how we build relationships and trust. You share a little something, and I share something in return. We dig deeper over time, becoming vulnerable. It’s a beautiful process.

But what we’re talking about here isn’t that kind of conversation.

We’re talking here about working through something. It could be a process at work, a relationship issue or a personal obstacle. When someone comes to me a says “Can we talk?”, I know what kind of listening I need to do. Unless it’s an issue they have with me, they probably don’t need my help finding a solution. They likely just need a safe space to work it out. They need someone to help them think progressively by listening until they exhaust the subject, then to ask “What else do you think about that?”

Give them the respect to find their own solutions rather than assuming that they need our genius to figure it out for them.

As one of my close friends said to me, “I don’t pretend to know how your mind works here. So I can’t pretend to know the best solution for you.” It is arrogance to think we know the right thing for others to do. And, in fact, if we finish their sentences or cut them off mid-thought, we likely haven’t even heard the real issue yet.

When we simply listen, we often feel like we’re doing nothing. But the opposite is true. By listening we are giving the speaker the most powerful tool we have: space to think. When someone exhausts a topic into silence, that’s when the real work is being done. It’s the silence of clarity. The words were simply steps on the rocky path to vision. Silence after verbal trekking is where we find understanding. Don’t be in a rush to cut them off just as they’re doing the best thinking they’ve done all day. Let the silence sit as long as they need. Don’t ask questions. Don’t offer insights. Just let them work it out. You’ll both be glad you did.

In the end, you’ll feel like to did very little. But in reality you did the only thing that could have worked. You were instrumental in their process precisely because you didn’t interrupt.

ASK INCISIVE QUESTIONS

Kline uses the term Incisive Questions for questions that allow others to continue on the mental journey when they get truly stuck.

We all get bogged down in assumptions of powerlessness or incapacity. A well-worded question gives us the ability to see the situation from a new perspective without giving us simplified solutions. In fact, it invites us to find our own solution.

If I’m feeling intimidated about talking to a wealthy prospective client, I might find myself wondering what I have to offer them that another consultant doesn’t. A helpful question might be “If I knew this person wanted to do business with me, how would I act differently around them?”

The key to Kline’s Incisive Questions is two-fold: 1. Insert a positive assumption that bypasses the limiting assumption, and 2. Guide the thinker back to their original goal.

This is an over-simplified look at Kline’s process, but you get the idea.

When I’m listening to someone struggle with a concept, and it’s clear they’ve gone as far as they can after several rounds of Tell me more and What other ideas do you have on this issue?, Incisive Questions can give them wings to explore other angles that were limited by an underlying assumption.

In my case, I might have responded that I would feel relaxed around this potential new client, and that my focus would be on listening to their goals and concerns without desperately trying to offer up solutions in the dark to problems they may not even have.

When we work from an assumption of capacity, we are able to come up with all kinds of positive strategies. That’s the magic of giving someone space to think through their own challenges without offering well-intended but often misguided solutions.

next steps

Next time you find yourself facing an obstacle whether your own or someone else’s, create an environment to listen and talk it through. Remove distractions and obstacles to thinking. Find the courage to sit in silence when needed. And ask an incisive question.

In the meantime, go practice your listening face. If nothing else it will entertain yourself and anyone lucky enough to catch you in the act.